Architect in Profile - Daniel Leon

In this Q&A with Daniel Leon, Director of Square Feet Architects, we delve into a captivating exploration of his extensive global career in architecture. With a wealth of experience and a unique perspective, Daniel brings forth a fresh and innovative approach to the field.


Daniel Leon

is the Director of Square Feet Architects

Please tell us a bit about your career background.

Before I set up Square Feet Architects, my career took me all around the world. I studied in Liverpool and Seattle, and then got my start practicing in Manchester and Sydney. I later moved to London to work for a number of high-profile firms – working on projects such as the refurbishment of St Luke’s Old Street for the London Symphony Orchestra, as well as some buildings for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

I set up Square Feet almost 20 years ago with an old friend. Our tight-knit team has worked hard to build up a wide-ranging portfolio of projects – most recently expanding into self-development. I’ve also sought to actively participate in the architectural community, serving as an RIBA Councillor from 2014 to 2017.

Have you always wanted to pursue a career in design?

Yes – in one form or another. As a child, I always wanted to be an ‘inventor’. I was drawn to the idea of creative and playful thinking to solve practical problems – and I’ve always loved to build things. So, when the time came to apply to university, architecture seemed like a good fit. Throughout my career, I like to think I never lost sight of that sense of childlike creativity.

What has been your greatest influence and source of inspiration?

For me, architectural inspiration has always come from experiencing buildings and structures first hand – not as an abstraction on a page. In my last year of university, I drove around Europe with other architecture students, visiting some truly spectacular Modernist buildings – most memorably Le Corbusier’s monastery near Lyon, and a number of structures by Carlo Scarpa dotted around northern Italy. A few years later, I got the chance to see some of Le Corbusier’s and Louis Kahn’s work in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad while travelling around India.

At the time, what thrilled me about these structures were the bold, sharp lines, clean facades and idealism. To me, they spoke to a supreme confidence – even a kind of utopianism – in what architecture could achieve. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve perhaps come to appreciate the more subtle artistry of these buildings – and have never scrupled to sneak some of these little touches into our own designs.

What has been your most notable project to date?

I’ll go with two if that’s allowed. The first would be a series of three houses in Hampstead – which were all built on backland sites and finely crafted with beautiful, sustainable materials such as carbon-negative prefabricated timber-panelled system. The second would be a refurbishment of an old coach house on Upper Park Road, also in London, which made use of an eclectic mix of old and new materials: from modern steelwork to traditional Danish Pedersen bricks and artisanal tiles from rural Italy.

How do you approach your projects?

My starting point is always the client themselves. I am not keen to force a house style on anyone and am always glad to work with a client to come up with something truly bespoke that suits their needs and wants. Moreover, my instinct is always to refurbish rather than demolish. Given that the construction industry is responsible for a colossal two thirds of the UK’s annual waste, there is a pressing need to try to maximise the value of existing structures rather than knocking them down and starting over from scratch.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for designing in sustainability?

The main task is to embed sustainability at all levels. This would involve, for example, using sustainable materials – but also thinking about the energy efficiency of our designs and the use of long-lasting, high-quality materials that won’t need to be replaced every few years due to wear and tear. This kind of thinking would, again, challenge us to ask whether we need to be demolishing so many buildings in the first place – and what use could be made of what’s currently standing.

What is your favourite building and why?

Again, I have two. The first would be Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, which I lived directly opposite for a few years as a student. I’ve always loved how it combines beauty with sheer scale; my feelings for it are also perhaps tinged with nostalgia for a very happy time. The second would be Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute near San Diego – a grand and mesmerising structure; it bowls you over in the best possible way.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for architects today?

The greatest challenge would be how to balance many competing priorities and considerations in our designs: restrictive planning systems, the need for more housing, changing patterns of work and life after the pandemic and the drive towards greater sustainability. Our time calls for flair and flexibility.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for architecture students?

That would be the big investment of time and money students must make to qualify as architects. In this regard, the recently-announced plans to simplify and update the qualifications process are certainly very welcome. This is a time of great change for built environments around the world, so I hope that we can attract the largest possible number of talented youngsters to the field.

What advice would you give to newly-qualified architects?

Go and see as many buildings first hand as you can. There is no substitute for the expanded horizons that this will give you. The ideas you will pick up – whether it is materials, shapes or stylistic vernacular – will enrich your designs throughout your career.

What can we expect to see from you over the next year?

We want to be a force for good in our community – both socially and environmentally. We want to design and develop structures that will be truly cherished by their owners and that can act as points of civic pride for local residents.

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